Sensory Overload

Being a doctor is a rollercoaster of emotions. Sometimes Medicine is an assault on all the senses. Other times it can be a downright pleasure.  Usually those two moments are only a few minutes apart.

We all have unique tastes and pet peeves.  Here are some of my favorite (and least favorite) sources of sensory overload.


Eye Candy

Watching first time parents see their newborn baby for the first time.

The sight of your relief walking through the door after a rough night shift.

A signed DNR on the contracted, bed sored, 103 year old.

Those rare moments when you can actually empty out the waiting room.

A “Paid in Full” student loan statement.


Ahhh!  My eyes!

Maggots wriggling in an open wound.

An airway pooling up with blood as you attempt to intubate

Exposed brain matter

The hopeless blank stare of a patient ready to die (but whose body and physicians have other plans)

The telltale signs of child abuse you wish you didn’t see but can’t ignore.



Music to my ears

The laughter of colleagues after some dark gallows humor.

The sigh of relief when you alleviate someone’s pain.

The reassuring beep of a climbing pulse ox after intubating someone in distress.

“I’ll be right there” from a consultant when a sick patient is circling the drain.

“Thank you” from someone….anyone!


Nails on a Chalkboard

The beep of the medic radio when the ED is already overflowing.

The sound of grinding teeth.

The rattling of phlegm in a patient’s throat when they’re too weak to clear it.

The screams of a mother being told her child is dead.

“Remember that kid you discharged yesterday?”


A Rose by Any Other Name

Hot coffee.  Anytime, anywhere.

Free pizza when you forgot to pack your lunch.

The smell of fresh-cut grass when you leave work on a warm spring day.

Fresh baked goods from a thankful patient.


Olfactory Assault

A snoring drunk breathing vodka and vomit into your face while you suture his lacerations.

The unmistakable scent of burnt flesh.

The rich bouquet of C. diff.

The smell of GI bleed wafting down the hall past the doctors’ station.

Infected retained tampon

Wet homeless man’s socks.


That’s the Spot

The rewarding “clunk” of a reduced dislocated artificial hip.

The warm hug or firm handshake of a grateful patient.

Finally having time to pee 7 hours into a shift.

Putting your keys in the ignition as you drive away from the hospital to start a 10 day vacation.

The humanizing thaw that starts to occur around day 4 of that vacation.


Uh Oh

The cold, clammy skin of someone who is about to code.

The sharp terrifying prick of a needle stick injury.

The 3 AM bolt-upright-in-bed fear that you missed something on a patient you discharged.

The imposter syndrome self-doubt your first week as an attending.



Down the Hatch

Hot coffee. Anytime, anywhere.

A cold beer after a long shift.

Those rare times you actually have time to eat the lunch you packed.


The metallic putrid taste of the air after incising a pilonidal abscess.

Swallowing your pride and asking for help.

CN I-XII Intact

A doctor’s day rarely goes as expected.  The one thing you can be sure of is your day (or night) will put all your senses to the test.  In this line of work, you have to take the good with the bad.  I hope the sweet moments outweigh the bitter and if you’re ever in doubt – wear a face shield!

What do you think?  Is your medical career an all out assault on your senses?  What are your favorite sights/sounds/smells throughout the day?  Share your thoughts and comments below. 

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7 thoughts on “Sensory Overload

  1. If people only knew some of the smells that physician’s have encountered during their career. I still can distinctly recall the smell that essentially permeated everything and everyone in gross anatomy lab. You could tell which medical students were taking that course especially if were trapped in an elevator with them.

    A few of my classmates got turned off to eating meat after that exposure. Lol


    1. Anatomy lab was definitely an assault on all the senses. The smell of formaldehyde, the slippery feel of liquefied fat on your gloves, and most of all the visual of a classmate using a hacksaw to saw a corpse’s skull in half.



  2. So good. One of the only times I thought I’d go to ground in residency was seeing and smelling an open head wound (gsw) in the trauma bay. On the flip side, I’m with you that the sight smell and taste of coffee is always welcome!


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